Every Sunday in Hong Kong, migrant women working as domestic staff gather in their tens of thousands in the centre of the city for their day off. To celebrate, to mourn, to live all the life they can on that one day of freedom. Born in Hong Kong and half-Chinese herself, Emmy the Great went back there recently to meet and interview some of these women. Though originally for a piece for the Guardian, her work also ended up inspiring her upcoming album, the lead single of which ‘Mahal Kita’ captures her experiences with these women on their day of freedom.
We spoke to her before a gig in Cologne about the inspiration she takes from these women, the hardships they face, and her forthcoming new album.
DiS: So how did you first find out about those Sunday assemblies?
Emmy the Great: When I was a kid I lived in Hong Kong so I had a stored memory of it, but a few years ago after my parents moved back I was there with my boyfriend, and the day we were there was the dragon boat race day, a public holiday and my boyfriend went, what’s going on? We saw these women sitting on the ground next to the harbour, and they had this beautiful wedding dress that they were passing around, because it was a bridal shower. And I was like, oh my god I forgot, it’s the weekend, it’s the day that the streets are alive. And then the time after that that I went back, I started joining in and speaking to people about it.
For a thing with such a context of such extreme oppression it seems like such a fun, life-affirming thing.
To me it shows – and this is helpful for all of us right now – that in the harshest conditions self-expression, and also pleasure, is a form of resistance, a form of defiance.
So it’s that kind of reclaiming of agency and selfhood and personhood?
Totally, I can’t speak for a whole community I only have a few friends in, but I would say that no-one’s doing it for show, they’re all doing it for themselves. But at the same time it’s this total show of like, “You thought I wasn’t a person. I’m a fucking person.”
Who’s generally employing them? There’s an updated version of that saying that goes “behind every successful woman is a strong woman making it all possible”...
The general narrative is that migrant workers being invited to Hong Kong as domestic help freed people up in the 80s. It coincided with women of the new middle class going out to work, hiring people to do things that they traditionally would’ve done in the house. But in Hong Kong the culture of it is so pervasive, you couldn’t say that it was just women, or just the middle class. There are so many more people employing migrant helpers.
So it’s almost “the done thing”?
Yeah, when I was a kid, I don’t remember many people not having domestic help, even in my normal, local state school. I’d go to someone’s house to play video games, and everyone’s house would have a domestic helper.
In your single ‘Mahal Kita’, you mention extreme hardships like the rooms being seven feet by five.
It’s not an exaggeration. There’s this forum in Hong Kong that’s like Reddit for expats, and I read this thread there asking where to get a “helper-sized bed” - smaller than a single bed, custom made. This woman on this thread was like: “I don’t have enough space for someone to live comfortably in my flat”. And some of the responses said: “Don’t do it, hire a local person to come in every other day”, and some said: “Just let them sleep on the sofa”. I can’t explain how scarce space is.
Domestic work is very hard, traditionally female work. Is there a male equivalent “migrant worker” job that people from these countries do?
I only know about the Philippines, although there are people from other places like Indonesia and Thailand, but the government in the 80s of the Philippines wanted to export labour because the economy wasn’t good enough to give everyone a job. They sold it as this beautiful duty people were doing. And in places like Hong Kong when they were offering this labour, they were like, what do we wanna give them that our people don’t wanna do? Domestic chores. And people felt more comfortable hiring women for those things. So the Philippines’ government was like, you’re heroes...I hear that there were parties at the airport.
There are men who come over as migrant workers, but domestic helpers are largely women. Men who are hired as gardeners, drivers, I imagine building structures…the other migrant jobs are like in factories and construction, and a lot of people go to the Middle East for construction, there aren’t many factories in Hong Kong. I need to do more research, but I think there are families in the Philippines where the grandparents look after the kids and the parents take it in turns to go work abroad. Because these contracts are short as well, like 2 years. I met this woman called Girlie, who’d come from Korea where she’d worked in a factory, she was in Hong Kong working in someone’s home, but at the end of this contract she was gonna go home, then to Korea to work in the factory again cos she preferred that. So there’s a certain amount of choice, but it’s just...a rock and a hard place.
And then there’s conditions of not having enough space to live in and function, and I saw you mention food deprivation?
There’s a report that shows that a significant number of domestic workers are suffering from hunger all the time because it’s hard to police that kind of treatment. If an employer is mean and doesn’t wanna spend their budget for food for their helper, how do you prove that you have a little bit of food but it’s not enough? That you’re just a little bit hungry all the time? So on Sundays people have to stock up. They’re earning 550 USD a month, in a city where you couldn’t rent a studio apartment for that. You could spend that on a meal. And they already pay the extensive fees to agencies to get those contracts, so they’re on the back foot already. So it’s a terrible deal for a lot of people. There are definitely examples of conditions being comfortable but there’s way too many examples of conditions being brutal and cruel.
And it seemed like even when employers aren’t mean or cruel, the basic standard doesn’t measure up to any standard of human rights.
Yeah and say you’re looking after a baby, how do you know how many hours you’re working a day? You wake up at 2, at 5, you work during the day your normal hours, so even if you’re happy in the work, and you like your employer and the child, you’re still working more than what you’re legally supposed to be. It’s hard to regulate.
*In your song you talk about that gross contrast between the landscape of the city – its wealth, high end shops etc – and all around are women in extreme poverty with no workers’ rights.**
Yeah, you have these shops that are getting posher and posher – when I lived there it was slightly less posh, now there are diamond shops everywhere so you know it’s the absolute most extreme of wealth – and on the other hand you have people who are facilitating lifestyles for an amount of money for which you couldn’t even buy...a napkin from these shops. The funniest thing I’ve ever seen is a woman pushing a pram full of nothing but chanel bags and then behind her there’s someone else holding her baby.
What’s fascinating to me is that it’s so normal...it’s difficult as someone who’s completely distanced from and unfamiliar with it, to imagine living with myself if I were in the position of the employer? Though of course you could say that about any privileged person within capitalism, but this being so extreme and so particular..?
Again, I can’t speak for everyone but when I started returning again I’d be like why is no-one breaking the protocol? Everyone’s just walking straight ahead. And every now and then you get a tourist being like “excuse me, what’s going on” and taking photos, but there’s no interaction. But I don’t judge every single person.
Because of course we simply can’t, the system’s bigger than the individuals that make it up.
And I’d have to judge myself! And the other thing is, people do need to be employed, so you can’t get rid of this, it’s about figuring out ways that people can be healthy and happy in their jobs. That’s a basic thing, that we should all be able to expect safety, comfort, shelter, rest...basic workers’ rights. That’s why the activists in that community are so amazing to me. Because they push and push. It was 400 USD a few years ago, it’s now 550.
In these cruel domestic settings it must get quite extreme, what kind of rights and protection do they have?
Well there was a famous case a few years ago, a worker from Indonesia was leaving the country, and someone noticed severe bruising and burns from an iron. And it caused this uproar, a moment of people waking up. The cover of my single, my friend took it, it’s tower blocks. That’s just a little square of a tower block, how can you know what’s going on inside every single one of those windows? When you drive through Hong Kong there’s almost vertical cities. So yes there are laws, but they’re not enforceable. Of course they must be, but it’s just so...they’re not working hard enough to.
The other thing is, in terms of places where migrant workers go, Hong Kong’s supposed to be the main destination because there’s legislation.
So these Sunday assemblies seemed to have this sense of that total highpoint of joy in survivalism. Maybe I’m sensationalising, but there seemed to be a real sense of celebration.
I think that there’s everything. I didn’t hang out in the evenings, but I did read on some forums quite deep...and because there’s such a huge spread of life that has to take place in that one day in that public space, so you have celebration, joy, memorials, sorrow, friends passing away. But I think at night it also gets a little seedy? There might be predatory dudes? I think so much of life is happening that it’s every shade, the light and the dark, but what I was drawn to was the celebration.
In your single, there was a real sense of space, as there has been increasingly in your music but particularly here, and that seemed defiantly peaceful in the context of what it was about.
There’s this Zen poem that I really like that says something like: “At the end of it all give me peace, freedom from ten thousand matters”, and I think that’s what I’m looking for. At the moment when everything is so crazy, and we’re just thinking and thinking, sometimes you just wanna have a conversation with someone, enjoy that moment of connection and experience.
There was a real sense of joy in the song about it too, especially in the chorus.
I think it’s because of that expression, the self expression of being among that, it’s the most connected I’ve felt with Hong Kong since I left. I was just a kid so I don’t remember how connected I felt, but that day I felt connected.
Did it feel like that experience influenced what you did with the song musically? Is there more of that to come on the album?
Yeah, the album’s gonna be quite Asia-focused, cities-focused, and now that I’ve found a way in...I was so lucky that this experience led to me actually figuring out for the first time how I would write about Hong Kong, which for me was always this distant frontier that I couldn’t figure out how to write about.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to have two completely different growing up experiences, so physically far apart. Do you feel like that informs your music and your lyrics?
It didn’t when I first started making music, I wasn’t in touch with the duality of it at all, I was just being an English girl singing about mythological English lands. But as I grew older I realised I had kept this Chinese person locked up inside, and then recently I’ve been able to have both of those voices. I always say it’s like discovering you have a key to a room in your house, and this room is infinite, and you can explore it forever, and it will never stop giving you stuff.
So is there a lot of that personal duality on the album?
There was towards the end of the second promo I did, I did some talks and translated my songs, and I really feel like I confronted that, and I feel like my next step is looking at the outside instead of always thinking about myself. I got right into the very centre of myself, and was like...you seem fine. Nothing bad has really happened to you, everything is ok, forgive yourself, forgive your family, let’s move on. If I didn’t have this job I wouldn’t have explored myself quite so deeply. And now I’m like, let’s go look at something else. I think now my question when I write songs is, is this relevant? Is there any point?
That’s quite a harsh standard!
Yeah...I like being harsh with myself!
But there seems to still be a personal connection with who you are as you look outwards.
Yeah, when you write songs that involve other people’s real stories, I’m still the protagonist because I can honestly tell the truth about my own experience, I can’t tell the full truth of someone else’s. It’s hard to quote someone, especially in a song where you only have one line. So I just tell it from my perspective. And it’s annoying to be in a position where you’re so fucking privileged. There was one day at the end of interviewing people where I called my dad and was like, “can you come pick me up please in your car”. And I can see at the end of the day I was jumping back into this privilege, and it took me a while to be like, that’s ok. We can’t be constantly mad at ourselves. Acknowledge the privilege you have. Don’t be a dick ever and don’t ever deny it, but it is ok to tell these stories. And I think the most important thing is to be honest, especially with yourself. We all know we’re not exempt, and we all buy the products that contribute to the big picture being wrong. It’s just about making as much effort as you can. And being kind.
Kindness as a value is in danger of getting lost at the moment as sort of surplus, when it’s so vitally important, so fundamental to our humanity.
I’ve been reading Yiyun Lee’s short stories, and they’re about living in China in the 80s, just after the really tight ‘communist’ rule but still in that really frightening authoritative society, people having no power, being so put upon, by powers bigger than themselves, and yet remembering for their whole lives these moments of kindness or connection that they had with a person who came through their life maybe briefly. And I think at the end of the day, like we were saying, self-expression is resistance. And to be absolutely lovely to someone even if you don’t have to is another form of resistance.
For more information about Emmy The Great, please visit her official website.